Synod of Bishops from Vatican II to ‘Vatican III’

The Pope is convinced that Church reform begins with a change of mentality, not with legislative or institutional changes. The latter are actually quite simple. But they must be preceded by inner, spiritual change.

Nov 10, 2019

By Massimo Faggioli
The relationship between Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops sums up the idea of reform in the current pontificate.

The Pope is convinced that Church reform begins with a change of mentality, not with legislative or institutional changes. The latter are actually quite simple. But they must be preceded by inner, spiritual change.

The two Synod assemblies on marriage and the family (2014 - 2015) were a pivotal event in this pontificate.

But besides a few minor adjustments introduced by Francis, these two gatherings unfolded according to Synod rules and protocols that were established by previous popes – from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

The first legislative changes to the Synod of Bishops were not made until September 2018 when Francis issued Episcopalis Communio. This motu proprio came six months after the International Theological Commission issued an important study on synodality.

Pope Francis revamps the Synod of Bishops
But even before 2018, the Pope had already begun making significant changes to the Synod.

In previous pontificates these gatherings were often “nonevents.” The bishops were expected to ratify – without any real debate or discussion – an agenda and predetermined outcome that was prepared by the Roman Curia and the ecclesiastical establishment.

By contrast, Francis has turned the Synod assemblies into real events. They have been prefaced by a serious consultation of the faithful at the local level.

The actual Synod gatherings in Rome have featured genuine freedom of expression. And the aftermath of these sessions have been marked by papal decisions about the conclusions the Synod has reached, which then enter a phase of ecclesial reception.

There is an obvious parallel between the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the way Pope Francis has utilised the Synod of Bishops. This is partly because the importance of each Synod assembly – like the Council – is found in the event itself, and not just in the documents. But it’s also because the Synod under Francis is more than an ecclesiastical show. Rather, it has become an ecclesial event involving the whole Church.

Vatican II was different from previous councils because it gave a wider ecclesial space and role to the participants. This growth was called by the French Church historian Yves Chiron, “peri-council” — in and around the council.

In a similar way, under Francis the Synods have seen the growth of the “peri-synod.” All voices and influences play an essential part of each assembly’s preparation, celebration and reception in ways as never before.

It is not just the bigger role of the press, but also of the different voices that make up the Church. Now the peri-synodal dimension of the Church is bigger and more relevant.

This is partly because of the globalisation of the Church. But it is also due to the crisis of the clerical system and the growing role of women.

More reforms will have to be implemented for the Synod of Bishops to become an instrument of ecclesial synodality.

First of all, there must be modifications to the Synod’s membership and voting rights. It cannot remain male and clergy only.

In some sense, we are already experiencing the next council, given the universal nature of the issues that the various Synod assemblies have discussed since 2014 and the decisions the Pope has made regarding them.

But the actual convocation of a general council is still the elephant in the room. This is largely due to the memory of the previous council.

The Synod assemblies in this pontificate continue to cast a light and reframe the way we talk about Vatican II and the possibility of holding a future council.--LCI (international.la-croix.com/)

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